Recently I suggested to a client that she should come up with a sensory trigger, like the smell of coffee beans — something she could use as a trigger to help her brain quickly go into an alpha state. This is the state that’s best for concentration. In his book, Learning About Learning, Samuel A. Malone says, “such waves correspond to a state of relaxed alertness. People learn faster and remember more when in this state.”

My client, Audrey, is a PhD candidate with a lot on her plate. It would be very useful for her to be able to sit down and get into an alpha state quickly. She already was a regular listener of my Mental Music station, which plays Baroque music by composers like Bach, Handel and Telemann. Baroque music is known to create an atmosphere of focused concentration in the alpha state. According to Malone, “learning vocabulary, memorizing facts or reading to Baroque music is highly effective.” He’s right! I’m listening to the station right now.

Audrey needed something a bit more portable than music, and something she could use in a variety of situations. She needed something like a smell or an action that would tell your brain, “We work now.” She knew exactly what I was talking about, and related this wonderful story. “I had a friend in college who was on the swim team, and she used to smell her hand (always chlorine-y) when she was concentrating. She didn’t even notice she was doing it until she had an injury that kept her out of the pool for several weeks and she lost her chlorine-y smell. She found it very distracting!”


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How perfect. That chlorine-y smell became a trigger to her friend’s brain to go and stay in an alpha state.  Audrey’s friend did this without even knowing what she was doing. But you can do it on purpose.

Here’s what I had Audrey do. I asked her to choose a sensory stimulus. She chose rosemary essential oil. She’ll use her rosemary oil to trigger and maintain an alpha state. First, of course, she needs to get her head all alpha- like. She might start by using the Mental Music station. Then when she’s in a really good working grove, she’ll whiff the oil. After doing this several times, she can remove the station. She’ll just sit down, open her vial of rosemary or dab a little on her wrist, and get down to business.

I believe this is why doing work in a coffee shop or café is so helpful for many people, myself included.  Not only do many of these places actually play Baroque music, but there’s the coffee-infused air and the café din.

There’s also ritual. Ritual is another wonderful way to reinforce states. My client Chad is a perfect example of how ritual can help the brain move into a working wave. Every workday morning Chad goes to his writing spot, orders a hot breve latte, and puts on his special get-to-work New England Patriots cap. That’s his ritual. He’s ready to work. And he works.

So: or Your turn:  What sensory stimuli or rituals do you or can you put in place to help you concentrate?